It was midday when an elderly traveler entered the Jewish quarter of Baghdad. The marketplace, where merchants from many lands sold their fabrics, spices and other wares, seemed strangely empty for such a day. He sighted the grandest building in the section, and determined that must be the great synagogue. He continued his trek towards it until he entered its courtyard and sat down to rest, opening his small sack to take out a few dried figs to refresh his strength. Yet no sooner had he started his lunch than he became aware of a commotion from within the sanctuary. He peeked inside, and beheld a moving spectacle—hundreds of Jews fervently chanting Psalms amidst tears and sobs.
“What has happened?” he asked of the first Jew whose attention he could grasp.
Hurriedly, and in a voice or desperation, the man told him the story as best he could. The Sultan had decreed that the Jewish people of Baghdad must produce a leader who could perform miracles as Moses had done. Since Moses was the leader of the Jewish people in Egypt, and he was able to do miracles, the Sultan expected the same from the leader of the Jews of Baghdad. If they would not produce such a miracle-maker, the Jews would be expelled from Baghdad. Therefore, all of the Jews were fasting and praying to G‑d for salvation.
In his calm and patient disposition, the wise traveler approached yet more Jews, until he had finally pieced together the entire story:
The Sultan’s chief advisor, Mustafa, was a vicious Jew-hater whose mission it was to destroy the Jews, or at least to have them banished from Baghdad. He had convinced the Sultan that the Jews were not only infidels for denying the prophet Mohammed, but that they were thieves and liars as well, deserving immediate expulsion. At first the Sultan was hesitant to believe Mustafa; however, the Sultan was told about what had happened when the Jews left Egypt and what Moses did to Pharaoh. He began to worry that perhaps one of the Jewish leaders of Baghdad would attack him with plagues, and decided he did not want to take any chances. Therefore, he issued a decree that the Jews had to produce a leader like Moses, or leave Baghdad immediately.
The wise, elderly traveler sat in contemplation for several moments, and then approached one of the rabbis at the front of the synagogue and whispered in his ear. Soon all the leaders of the community were talking quietly, and then suddenly there was a loud clap on the lectern, and one of them spoke. “This man who is visiting our town says that he has a plan. He will travel to the Sultan immediately to try and save us. If he is successful, we will rejoice. However, if he fails, he will tell the Sultan that he acted alone. Meanwhile, we will continue to pray for his success!”
The man headed for the palace, pounded on the entrance gate, and said, “I am a Jew who can do miracles, and I demand to see the Sultan immediately.” Before long, he found himself face to face with the ruler of Baghdad. “So,” said the Sultan, “You claim you can do miracles like Moses. What can you do?”
Dozens of people, from the baker and the court jester to the royal guards and advisors, stared at the old man with the white beard and piercing eyes. “If you would be so kind,” said he, “I will perform a miracle akin to those which Moses himself did. Before your very eyes, I will cut off a man’s head with a sword, and then put him back together and make him live!”
The Sultan smiled nervously and glanced around, not knowing what to think or make of the situation. Perhaps the fellow was completely crazy. Or perhaps he was telling the truth. After all, the he seemed extremely confident, and spoke with such conviction. What if he was telling the truth? If he doubted him, then who knows what kind of wrath would be unleashed on the Sultan and his kingdom.
He continued, “There is but one condition. The man whose head I cut off must be truly wise. In fact, he must be the wisest man in the realm. If not, his head will not properly reattach.”
Intrigued, the Sultan decided he must see for himself if the Jew was telling the truth. He looked around the room until his eyes fell on Mustafa, his chief advisor and the wisest man in the kingdom. Before the Sultan said a word, Mustafa cried out, “No, he is lying! The Jew is an impostor! He can’t really cut someone’s head off and reattach it.” “That might be true,” said the Sultan, “but what if he is telling the truth and we don’t accommodate him? Surely you don’t want to put the whole kingdom at risk! Afer all, were you not the one who had advised me to expel the Jews, lest we be put in danger?”
“Bring the sword immediately,” cried the Sultan. “Mustafa has volunteered!” With that, Mustafa began to tremble and yelled out, “No, I admit it. I was both wrong and very foolish. The Jewish people do not have extraordinary powers!” Mustafa ran out of the palace, never to be seen again. The Sultan annulled the decree, thanked the Jew for coming, and said that the Jews were welcome to live in Baghdad as long as they desired.
The man returned to the synagogue to share the good news. Immediately, there was unbelievable rejoicing, and a banquet was held in honor of the miracle that G‑d had done for His people. Then quietly and quickly, the old man slipped out and left the town before anyone could even get his name. Some people say that he was Elijah the Prophet. Some say he was a great mystic. Yet others believe that he was just a Jew who simply cared about his fellow Jews as much as he did about himself.
This story helps elucidate a very interesting aspect of the Passover observance. Every holiday is marked by mitzvahs. Yet, many of these mitzvahs are not equally fulfilled by all. For example, most of us hear the shofar from someone else who blows it, and on Chanukah, many have the custom that the head of the household kindles the menorah as a representative of the entire family. Yet, on Passover, everyone must eat his or her own matzah. On Passover, we are all equally significant.
The Exodus was the time when our people came together as one. Leaving Egypt united as one people set the stage for the mitzvah that Hillel considered to be the core of the entire Torah: love for a fellow Jew. The hero of this story actualized that which we all know to be true, that each of us is complete only when we do all that we can to ensure that every single Jew is being taken care of as well.
This is why the Passover haggadah begins with an invitation, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.” Our table is complete only when it is open to others!
Nuta Yisrael Shurack is the Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer of the e-newsletter and website A Shtikel Vort. Article Courtesy of chabad.org.